Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Four's a Charm - Let's Free Motion

Ready for the next installment of Four's a Charm? It's time to free motion quilt our sandwich!

Let's start with some basics for those of you who have never free motion quilted before, like what the heck is free motion quilting? It's free because the feed dogs on your machine are lowered, meaning the sewing machine isn't controlling the movement of the fabric. This puts you in charge of moving the quilt sandwich around to get your desired design, hence the motion.

Free motion quilting is a bit intimidating, so if you've never done it before consider practicing on a couple of test sandwiches.
    Another good idea is to check out online classes or videos. I picked up an excellent book at the library recently called Free-Motion Machine Quilting by Don Linn. This book contains tons of good advice and is definitely worth reading.

    Feeling confident? Great. Let's get our supplies together. Here's what we'll need:
    • a darning foot
    • quilting gloves
    • an extension table (maybe not required but extremely helpful)
    • cotton thread. I'm using Aurifil Cotton Mako 40 weight thread in gray #2605 - but Gutermann works great, too, and is easier to find
    • a few filled bobbins. Free motion quilting uses lots of thread, so be ready!
    • pillows or blankets or towels to sit if you don't have an adjustable height office chair
    • a fresh sewing needle, ideally size 14 topstitch needles, but just about any universal needle will work if it's new and sharp

    Start by lowering the feed dogs on your machine. Those are the little teeth on the foot plate that move the fabric under the needle.

    Set your stitch length to 0.

    We're going to start sewing at the center of the quilt and work in quadrants. Here's a diagram of the basic meander stitch I'm using and the path I'm taking starting at the center:

    Notice how I change direction in quadrant 4. If quilting starts to feel awkward and you're having difficulty managing the sandwich, it's probably time for change in direction. While the switch direction is obvious in my diagram, it won't be noticeable at all on the finished quilt.

    One last thing before we begin. It's okay to free motion in and out of the edges of the quilt even though that's not obvious from my drawing.

    Not only is it okay to stitch beyond the top, it's encouraged!
    Roll up two sides of the sandwich then slide the under the needle until you get to the center of the quilt.

    Holding the tail of the needle thread, bring the needle down into the sandwich and then back up again just one time. Pull on the tail until the bobbin thread comes up through the sandwich. Use the tip of your scissors or a pair of tweezers to pull the bobbin thread completely out.

    Move the threads out of the way the best you can then make 3 or 4 stitches in the same spot where you pulled out the bobbin thread to anchor your stitches.

    Place your gloved hands on either side of the needle and gently start moving the sandwich while you sew, creating your desired pattern. If your machine has a speed control function, use it. Start on the slow speed and work your way up to medium as your skill increases. It's easy to feel out of control when you're sewing too fast. Speed control really helps mitigate this problem.

    The trick to free motion quilting is finding just the right sewing speed and just the right speed with your hands. When these two forces are out of whack, stitches can be either too long or too short. Long stitches mean you're moving too fast compared to the speed of the needle. Super short stitches are caused by the opposite - moving too slowly while the needle is moving too fast.

    Remove your pins as you go, stopping often. If you can program your machine to stop in the needle down position this makes stopping and starting again much easier. Needle up/needle down is definitely a luxury of newer machines. If you don't have it, turn the hand wheel until your needle is planted into the sandwich whenever you stop.

    Plan ahead so you don't get trapped in a corner.
    Once the top is completely quilted, bury the threads in the sandwich. Here's a cool technique I found on YouTube:

    Here are a few free motion tips worth mentioning:
    • Sit up high. Your elbows should ideally be at 45 degree angle to your body.
    • Good lighting is a must
    • Take plenty of breaks
    • Take off your shoes. You'll have greater control in bare or stocking feet.
    • Keep your shoulders relaxed
    • Don't sweat the mistakes. Once the quilt is washed all those little imperfections will magically disappear.
    Yippee! We're almost done with our Four's a Charm quilt. In the next (and last) installment we'll cover how to bind the quilt. 

    To find all the posts in the series click here.

    As always, please feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions. Happy sewing!


    1. Where did you find the 40wt Aurifil? I'd like to try that and it seems most stores carry the 50wt.

    2. Nice tutorial. You are good at explaining things. Super cute quilt!

      1. Thanks, Clemma. There's so much to cover with free motion quilting. I feel like I only scratched the surface...